Despite prime minister-designate Hun Sen’s insistence that the pardoning and release on Saturday of incarcerated former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders were not motivated by pressure from abroad, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy claimed the opposite.
However, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan said Rainsy would soon be condemned by former colleagues as his moves are becoming increasingly opposed to theirs.
Hun Sen, who is also CPP president, said last week that he planned to request King Norodom Sihamoni issue a royal decree freeing 12 CNRP activists who are serving sentences ranging from seven to 20 years behind bars. Most began serving time in July 2015.
Hinting that the pardons could come in conjunction with the Pchum Ben festival in October, he said the move was simply due to his “kindness” and “mercy” and had nothing to do with criticism of the July 29 elections in which his party swept total control of the 125-seat National Assembly.
Posting on his Facebook page on Saturday evening, Rainsy contradicted Hun Sen, saying: “Don’t believe Hun Sen’s lies and don’t let him bully you because [Hun Sen is under] unprecedented international pressure.
“The louder I say that Hun Sen is giving in to international pressure the faster he releases political prisoners. Therefore, political prisoners do not need to ask Hun Sen’s forgiveness. It is Hun Sen who must ask political prisoners forgiveness for having arrested them in the first place,” Rainsy wrote.
Ex-CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in October 2016 for Facebook posts criticising the government’s handling of a border issue, was released on Saturday afternoon, shortly after his pardon came in.
Speaking to journalists just after his release, Sam An said he hadn’t been aware of the pardon until he had been notified by prison guards.
“I would like to request the release of Kem Sokha because he is very ill and in need of medical treatment abroad. Please release him and other political prisoners to show national reconciliation.
“I strongly support what the prime minister said about having a massive prisoner release during Pchum Ben, Independence Day, or Water Festival,” he said.
Sam An went on to say that he would refrain from participating in politics for five years, abiding by the ban imposed on CNRP members after their party’s court-mandated dissolution. However, he expressed hope that the party would be revived.
“I am a strong supporter of the CNRP, so if there is no CNRP, I would not become a member of any party. Once the CNRP is reborn, I will participate in it. I am a politician and I will be in politics. However, I will wait until the CNRP is back,” he said.
Responding to Rainsy, Eysan said his words tantamount to backstabbing his former opposition colleagues.
Posting on social media on Sunday Eysan said: “Samdech Techo Hun Sen wishes for national reconciliation by releasing prisoners who are former CNRP supporters who committed crimes. However, Sam Rainsy who is still convicted has acted to prevent the release of more prisoners.
“Rainsy wants to keep his supporters in prison. He would have an excuse to attack the government. But bad intentions from the convicted Sam Rainsy cannot prevent Hun Sen’s kindness and good intentions,” he said.
Ou Chanrath, a former CNRP lawmaker who has made many calls for the release of “prisoners of conscience”, said that Rainsy’s words shouldn’t impact any future pardons and that he supported Hun Sen’s move.
“The problem with Sam Rainsy is his expression, the criticism. He simply expressed his opinions. What’s important is the release of the prisoners,” Chanrath said on Sunday.
Weighing in on the impending pardons, political analyst Em Sovannara, said they would show the international community that the political climate in the Kingdom was cooling.
“In this context, I don’t think it’s about kindness. If it was about kindness, the prisoners would have been released long ago. The political climate has loosened up after having an election without one competitor.
“It is more likely [because of] the requests from the international community,” he said, adding that if the prime minister continued to release prisoners, Rainsy’s claims would be true and he could drop the issue.